We’re on Day 20 of “shelter in place” here in the San Francisco Bay Area. We’re counting our blessings, trying to figure out how we can be most helpful to others while also taking good care of ourselves, and trying to wean ourselves off spending too much time on social media. I definitely need my “church” of regular check-ins with family and friends, daily mindfulness exercises, and lots of yoga classes to stay sane through all of this.
Back to Bach’s church. Today is Palm Sunday! Bach never officially wrote a cantata for this Sunday, since no music was to be performed in the churches during Lent. However, in 1714, Palm Sunday fell on the same day as the feast of the Annunciation of Mary, March 25. This way, while specifying “for the feast of the Annunciation of Mary” on the title page of the cantata manuscript, Bach could still write music for Palm Sunday with cantata 182 Himmelskönig, sei wilkommen! (Welcome, King of Heaven!)
If you’re not in the mood for a long story and would just like to listen to a short piece of calming music, I recommend the live performance of the opening sinfonia of this cantata on the YouTube channel of Voices of Music, with two fabulous soloists: Hanneke van Proosdij on recorder and Rachel Podger on violin. You can find that video here.
Many of Bach’s Weimar cantatas start with an elaborate instrumental ouverture or sinfonia.* There are two possible reasons for this. First of all, it was in Weimar that Bach studied lots of French and Italian compositions, and he might have wanted to “show off” that he could also write such a fashionable ouverture. But there might have also been a more practical reason: such an opening movement was the perfect piece of music during which the Duke and his entourage would slowly walk into the chapel and take their seats, and not miss anything of the cantata itself.
For the entire cantata, my all-time favorite still is the recording by Montreal Baroque. Listen here on Spotify, or here on YouTube. Their one-on-a-part performance is similar to how this would have sounded from the small organ loft in Weimar, and features fabulous singing all around (soprano Monika Mauch, countertenor Matthew White, tenor Charles Daniels, bass Harry van der Kamp).
Find the text of cantata 182 here, and the score here.
If you would like to learn more about Bach’s time in Weimar, please visit my post about Bach in Weimar I wrote in 2016. I’ve just updated it with some new photos, including a picture of the organ loft, and it has all the same links for the recording, text, and score as mentioned here.
In Leipzig in 1724, Bach performed this cantata again, on the feast of the Annunciation of Mary, which that year fell eight days before Palm Sunday.
Entry of Christ into Jerusalem by Pietro di Giovanni d’Ambrogio, 1435-1440. Pinacoteca Stuard, Parma, Italy.
Following Bach’s cantata writing in 1725, we have now come to Cantata 1 Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, an oh so pretty composition with two horns in the orchestra, also the very last of Bach’s 1724/1725 cycle of chorale cantatas. And Bach probably knew that when he was writing it. It is based on the chorale about the Morning Star, a metaphor for Christ.
The recording of this cantata I like best is the one by Montreal Baroque, with soprano Monika Mauch, counter-tenor Matthew White, tenor Charles Daniels, and bass Stephan MacLeod. Please find it here in my playlist on Spotify. If you don’t have access to Spotify, you can purchase the album here on Amazon or listen to Harnoncourt’s recording on YouTube.
This cantata was the first I ever wrote about. It was in college, as an assignment for Frits de Haen: we had to compare a modern-instrument and a period-instrument recording of a piece of our choice. I don’t remember why I selected this cantata. At the time the only period-instrument recording I had was the one by Harnoncourt. Frits loved the review I wrote (in Dutch) and kept giving me nudges to write more. For several years in a row after that first review I wrote for his class, I would run into him at the Utrecht Early Music Festival or at another concert, and he would always ask “are you still writing?” or “why aren’t you writing?” and told me that I should really write every day or every week. His words have always stayed with me and are one of several reasons why I started writing this blog in January 2016.
You might think it is because of Palm Sunday that there was music in the Leipzig churches again on this Sunday. However, in Leipzig Palm Sunday was firmly part of Lent (the 40 days of introspection before Easter): no thinking beyond the crucifixion until Good Friday, and thus not celebrated with music. Or was it?
An exception was always made for the Annunciation of Mary: if that day, March 25, fell within Lent, it would still be celebrated, an thus Bach could write a cantata for that day.
The only surviving Bach cantatas for the Annunciation of Mary, Cantata 182 Himmelskönig, sei wilkommen from 1714** and Cantata 1 Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern from 1725 were written for days when this holiday fell on Palm Sunday. And perhaps not surprisingly, both these cantatas are also very much Palm Sunday cantatas, or at least Bach’s librettist interprets the Annunciation as yet another announcement of the arrival of Christ. The references to the coming of Christ outnumber the references to Mary, in the text as well as in the music.
I think it is striking that in Cantata 1 Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern Bach uses a chorale that was so strongly associated with the Christmas season, and writes music that is festive and perhaps even regal, but at the same time humble, with horns in the orchestra instead of the trumpets and timpani he would have used for a bigger holiday. Whether he was indeed illustrating the Palm Sunday story (a humble king entering Jerusalem, riding on a donkey) I don’t know, but it is very well possible.
This week, I watched a very good video by the Swiss Bach Foundation (Bachstiftung) about today’s cantata 155 Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange? I found it very insightful, helpful, and even entertaining, but was struck by its Calvinist character and was a bit disappointed by the director’s statement that he doesn’t know why this cantata starts with a movement for solo soprano. When reading Gardiner’s and Van Hengel’s discussions of this cantata, I liked their suggestions that the soprano lament refers to Mary’s role in the Bible story of this Sunday, the Marriage at Cana. It made sense to me. This cantata, from 1715 and repeated in 1724, contains references to the wine as well as to the fact that Jesus says to his mother: “my time has not come yet.”
While the Lutheran church in Bach’s time did not regard Mary as a saint, let alone a mediator between God and the people, she was still an important person in the faith, and thus probably also for Bach. The three Marian feast days* Luther kept on the calendar were important holidays and Bach wrote cantatas for all of them. Also, Bach wrote this cantata 155 in his Weimar years, when he explored a large number of works by (Catholic) Italian composers.
Listen to Montreal Baroque’s recording of cantata 155 on YouTube through a playlist I created. With Monika Mauch, soprano; Franziska Gottwald, alto; Charles Daniels, tenor; Harry van der Kamp, bass; Anna Marsh, bassoon. If this playlist doesn’t work for you (it might not work outside of the USA), or you prefer to watch a live recording, you can find the live performance by the J.S. Bach Foundation here, with Julia Neumann, soprano; Margot Oitzinger, alto; Julius Pfeifer, tenor; and Raphael Jud, bass.
Read the German text with English translation of this cantata here, and find the score here.
The cantata is not so much a musical play with the soprano taking the role of Mary, but more a reference to her role in the Gospel story and an exploration of that theme: try to trust that everything will be okay in the end, try to not be in control all the time. The first movement has the character of a lament in music and text, you can picture the hand-wringing, the desperation. There is also the steady pedal point in the bass, similar to what Bach will use later in the opening chorus of the St. Matthew Passion.
However it is the second movement, not even sung by the soprano, and with text that is trying to urge her to “let go,” that secretly is the true lament, in the music that is. To hear or see this, the video by the Swiss Bach Foundation is terrific. They explain extremely well (with music examples) how the notes of the solo bassoon part form in fact a lament for three voices. watch from 12:10 By the way: the composition I had to think of when hearing the “lamento bass” was Monteverdi’s Lamento della Ninfa
If you would like to explore other cantatas for this second Sunday after Epiphany, I invite you to read my post about cantata 3 from 1725 here. It is all about hidden messages in the music of a an extremely beautiful composition with an equally heart wrenching—but completely different—opening movement as this cantata 155.
Wieneke Gorter, January 14, 2017, links updated January 31, 2020.
*The Purification of Mary on February 2, The Annunciaton of Mary on March 25, and the Visitation of Mary on July 2.
Christ cleansing a leper, Jean-Marie Melchior Doze, 1864
For this third Sunday after Epiphany, we find no less than four gems in Bach’s treasure trove: cantatas 73, 111, 72, and 156. I decided to highlight 73 and 72, because of the interesting references between the two. As far as we can tell, Bach loved these cantatas too: He performed cantata 73 at least one more time, and transcribed the opening chorus of cantata 72 into the Gloria of his Mass in G minor.
From the chronology of performances in Leipzig, it looks as if Bach wrote cantata 73 in 1724 and cantata 72 two years later. However, some scholars argue that (a large part of) cantata 72 was probably already written around 1715, since most of the poetry is from a collection Bach used when working in Weimar at that time. But whether 72 was first or 73 was first, it doesn’t matter that much for the appreciation of these two beautiful cantatas.
I have a soft spot for cantata 73 because I love the way Herreweghe performs this, have listened to the 1990 recording many times since it came out, and then to the (better!) 2013 recording. The best parts are the opening chorus and the bass aria (sung by Peter Kooy on both recordings) and I’m grateful for Eduard van Hengel’s Bach website (in Dutch) where I learned a lot about the many possible bits of reference in this cantata to other works.
The most important words from the Bible text for this third Sunday after Epiphany (the story of Jesus cleansing a leper, from the gospel of Matthew):
Da er aber vom Berg herabging, folgte ihm viel Volks nach. Und siehe, ein Aussätziger kam und betete ihn an und sprach: Herr, so du willst, kannst du mich wohl reinigen. Und Jesus streckte seine Hand aus, rührte ihn an und sprach: Ich will’s tun; sei gereinigt!
(When He had come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed Him. And behold, a leper came and worshiped Him, saying, Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean. Then Jesus put out His hand and touched him, saying, I am willing; be cleansed.)
In the opening chorus: The illustration of the word “Alles” (Everything): one can hear all the instruments in the orchestra, and when the voices come in, they first jump an octave over two quarter notes, signifying all the possible notes in the chord, and then run up in 16th notes, singing every single note in the chord.
In the alto aria: nine times the words “Herr, so du willt” – make sure to remember this melody!
In the bass aria: the text is set in the third person, but it is almost as if Jesus himself is speaking here, and this is where the text moves to the “Ich will’s tun” (I will do it / I am willing) words from the gospel.
In the soprano aria*: the happy and sweet elaboration on the “Ich will’s tun” – which here turns into “my Jesus will do it!”
The closing chorale: the same text and tune Bach uses throughout cantata 111 for this same Sunday in 1725, as well as in the St. Matthew Passion (but in that case with different harmonies in the last four lines!)
Please note: these are two different Herreweghe recordings. The newest one, on Herreweghe’s own label, features a different soprano and tenor soloist than on his earlier recording of this same cantata (Virgin Classics, 1990, with soprano Barbara Schlick and tenor Howard Crook). I like this new one better. The entire CD is wonderful, and also features fabulous counter-tenor Damien Guillon in the other cantatas on the disc. If you like this recording, please consider supporting the artists by purchasing it on Amazon.
What to listen for in cantata 73:
In the opening chorus: the first four notes of the original chorale Herr, wie du willt, so schick’s mit mir in Leiden und Sterben, used as a four-note “Leitmotiv,” first appearing staccato in the horn in the orchestra:
and at the very end of the movement, homophonically in the choir, repeated three times, not something Bach normally does in cantata opening choruses:
In the bass aria: now the “Herr, wie du willt” from the chorale text turns in to “Herr, so du willt” from the gospel text. And to accentuate this, Bach again gives this text its own “Leitmotiv”-like melody. However, it might not have been a new melody. It is very similar to “Bist du bei mir” from Anna Magdalena’s music book. She wrote this aria in her book much later, but it was copied from an opera aria by Stölzel from 1717. Perhaps this opera aria was already being hummed in the Bach household in 1724, we will never know. Later in the bass aria in cantata 73, the “Herr, so du willt”-melody from the alto aria of cantata 72 returns!
What I love especially in this bass-aria is the illustration of “Leichenglocken” (death bells) by pizzicato strings and a somewhat “tolling” movement in the vocal part. My mother (a walking Bach encyclopedia who played a cantata on the turntable / CD player every Sunday) would always point features like this out to me. Bach used it in many other cantatas, for example in (cantata number/movement number): 8/1, 95/5, 105/4, 127/3, 161/4, 198/4. [Thanks again to Eduard van Hengel, I didn’t have to look this up myself].
* While overall I like Bach Collegium Japan’s recording of cantata 72 best, and I love how Rachel Nicholls sings the soprano aria, I would like to mention that on Montreal Baroque’s recording of this work, the soprano aria by Monika Mauch is excellent and worth listening to. How she makes everything calm on the words “sanft und still” is very special.